Note: Hi all! This is my first time doing a trip report, so would welcome feedback and thoughts. I am conscious that I definitely did this in ‘long-form’ style, but wanted it to serve multiple purposes and this trip meant a lot to me so I hesitated from cutting it down at this stage. One quick plug up front: I am an American expat (early 30s) living near London, England. Not sure how many folks here are based in the UK, but if you are interested in collaborating on a trip some time, shoot me a DM. It’d be great to find some hiking partners that may have similar aspirations. OK, happy reading!
Ok, on with the trip report:
Where: Scottish 4000ers Traverse; this is an unofficial route that hits the 9 peaks in Scotland >4000ft, starting near Aviemore in the Cairngorms and finishing in Fort William.
When: 2021/09/04 to 2021/09/11
Elevation Gain: 22.8K feet
Conditions: Temperatures ranged during the week from the low 50s to mid/upper 60s during the day, with one standout ‘nice’ day on Wednesday that was sunny with temps reaching mid 70s; temperatures did not go much below 50 at night. Precipitation trended drier in the first half of the week, with wet days on Thursday and Friday. Overall, beyond the Wednesday sun, mist and fog clung to the peaks. Unfortunately, I did not get any views from the summits with every view blocked by mist (some visibility from Cairn Gorm).
Useful Pre-Trip Information or Overview:
- Link to route taken on OS Maps: https://osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/route/8005465/4000ers-Traverse
- I plotted the route based off an entry in this older book that is great for on/off trail routes in Scotland: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Backpackers-Britain-Southern-Scottish-Highlands/dp/1852845279
Photo Album: https://imgur.com/gallery/kXx5csx
I planned to arrive in Aviemore by train on Saturday evening, after leaving my car in Berwick-upon-Tweed that afternoon. I’d driven up from Kent starting Friday night, and Berwick would be my singular point of return for my car after I’d finished the thru hike.
My first impression after arriving in Aviemore was – rather unexpectedly – that Aviemore lets loose on a Saturday night. This left me in the predicament of being turned away at every pub and being unable to get a taxi (to get 6.5 miles down the road to Glenmore where I’d camp for the night).
After being rescued by the local chippy (Fish & Chips shop for my American friends) and having to use more of my phone battery than planned, I managed to flag down a taxi to get me up the road. I’d also managed a cheeky bottle of Bowmore from the Tesco, which I promptly transferred into a spare plastic bottle for the purpose.
I had a quick pint at the Pine Marten Bar in Glenmore, started my walk in the general direction of where I’d pitch that night, only to realize about 10min down the trail that my left hand felt oddly naked. And for the second time in the seven years I’ve been married, I realized I’d lost my wedding ring (don’t judge me). After a walk back to the bar, digging around in bushes in the dark with a headlamp, and an unsuccessful call to the taxi driver, I was back on the trail hoping like last time the ring would turn up in my pack later on.
I was pleased with the pitch I ended up finding, right on the shores of Loch Morlich, looking across at the lights of Glenmore before getting to sleep ahead of my first big day.
Day 1 – Glenmore (Loch Morlich) to Corrour Bothy (13.8 Miles, 4,419ft gained)
I woke up at 6:30, enjoying the crisp morning on the loch with a bit of morning mist. I seem to have disturbed the way of things in that little corner of the loch, as a group (flock?) of lady mallards seemed perturbed by my presence. I packed up and started on the trail, feeling that level of excitement you only get from day one of a hiking trip (mixed with some still lingering frustration from wedding-ring-gate).
Relatively quickly, I was making my way up to where I would ascend Cairn Gorm, the first of the nine peaks in Scotland that are above 4000ft, all of which I would reach on this trip. After some slight indecision around how to avoid ongoing construction on the funicular, I started up the Windy Ridge trail to the top.
Little did I know that the mediocre visibility from the top of Cairn Gorm would be the best I would get from all of the 4000ers that week. The ridge across to Ben Macdui (2nd 4000er) was pretty cool, with an epic vantage point. Who knows, maybe all the ridges were this great, but this was the only one I saw out of the mist!
Next was to descend the other side of Ben Macdui into a valley called Lairig Ghru. This was an off-trail, rockhopping descent that makes you continually second guess whether this is actually the way you were meant to go down (“There must be a better route”). I didn’t love the experience on the rocks, but the views of the Lairig, featuring a winding river, opalescent with reflecting light, and a deep green backdrop was one of my favorite views of the trip and was well worth it.
It was around this time where, upon looking at the OS map on my phone, I spotted Corrour Bothy only a couple miles up the Lairig from where I would come off of Ben Macdui. I’d initially planned a wild camp in Garbh Coire before ascending Braeriach (3rd) in the morning. I knew it was supposed to rain that evening, so the pull of staying dry for at least one more night was attractive. I headed south, and reached the bothy before 4pm. Inside was a nice middle-aged guy from Lincoln and a couple backpacks. These were soon claimed by a University of Edinburgh couple that had been checking out the Devil’s Point nearby.
This was the best ‘social’ bothy evening on the trip. Four of us in the bothy felt comfortable and with COVID taken into account, latecomers knew there was no cramming in – it was pitch the tent outside. Dinner and conversation was good, including with a couple of the campers making dinner inside. It’s for opportunities like these I like to carry the whisky to share.
At a delightfully early hour, we called it a night. Given my earlier detour, I was apprehensive about the next day, knowing I’d have to double back a bit to check off Braeriach and keep my 4000er quest alive. I left the decision open, in case I wasn’t feeling great and would make the decision only when I had to.
Day 2 – Corrour Bothy to Ruigh-Aiteachain Bothy in Glen Feshie (16.9 Miles, 4,662ft gained)
Small digression: Advantages of staying in the bothy: warm, dry accommodation. Disadvantage: waking up on the top bunk at 3am having to pee, and feeling like you are creating miniature explosions by the noise you make getting down from said bunk and opening/closing the door. You fall asleep trying to shed your guilt with the progression of every other person in the bothy following your cue (having clearly been woken up by your attempt).
Back to the main plot, I woke up and got a decent start from the bothy, headed west up the trail near the Devil’s Point to gain some elevation. My plan was to then follow the ridge north to Cairn Toul (4th), Sgor an Lochain Uaine (The Angel’s Peak; 5th), and Carn na Criche, finally ticking off Braeriach, before doubling back a bit to proceed on my original route. At the decision point on Cairn Toul, I was feeling good and was comfortable to push for it – I also had scoped out a way down the ridge from Carn na Criche that seemed doable and would cut the corner off the double-backing I needed to do.
As per my M.O., the peaks were as misty as humanly possible. A particular memory was Carn na Criche, where an off-centre cairn took some finding. The stone mass literally materialized as if out of thin air, once I was only 10-20 feet away having to trust fully the GPS on my phone.
After some snack breaks, I made my way down Carn na Criche to meet up with my planned route toward Glen Feshie. The descent was uneventful, though the terrain varied, as if I had to clear multiple levels in a video game – including the obligatory ‘stonefield-stepping’ level – though after my experience on Ben Macdui, I was a pro.
I took a well-timed lunch near Loch nan Cnapan, giving me a bit of a boost through the last of the off-trail bit, before gloriously reaching the double-track that would let me cruise the rest of the way into the glen.
And cruise I did. Though, after some gentle ups and downs, it was on the final descent of the gravel track into the glen when I started to get that subtle message from my left big toe that there was some rubbing happening that was not being well-received. And, like any hiker who hasn’t been burned by foot health yet on a trip, I figured I could make it the rest of the way. Bet this will work out!
Heading down into Glen Feshie felt a bit like the descent into Rivendell, with the sharp contrast of sun and lush green coniferous vegetation with the harsh mists and heather of the peaks earlier in the day. After the pleasant, though seemingly drawn out descent, I turned left and out popped Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy, my stop for the night.
After the experience at Corrour, where, with four people in the bothy, a few late-comers needed to stay in their tent outside, I found myself crossing my fingers as I approached, hoping I wouldn’t be too late for a spot. When I popped my head in the door, I heard some banging around, but it turned out to be from a sole occupant. Based on his attire and the fact he was confidently at the helm of a propane stove in the kitchen area, I gathered he was some sort of permanent fixture / groundskeeper. Sure enough, I was offered welcome and pretty soon half of whatever he was making for dinner. I turned out to be the only traveller passing through that night, and I enjoyed a very chill evening chatting with him about the valley and all sorts of things (including the quarter million £ refurbishment of the bothy a few years ago that made it look as classy as it does), over a few cups of tea, dinner, and eventually a couple drams of whiskey. I fell asleep to the flame of candles, which he always leaves on as a welcome in case a weary traveller is passing by in the night and needs a place to stop.
Day 3 – Ruigh Aiteachain Bothy to Loch Cuiach (14.8 Miles, 2,178ft gained)
I left Ruigh Aiteachain with a decent start next morning, a couple cups of real coffee, and some advice that would save me about 4mi, right off the bat. My initial plan was to walk up the path to the footbridge, thinking the river was too wide for a crossing, but he let me know I should have no trouble a ways down the river from where the bothy is (4x4s used to cross down there). After saying my goodbyes, and a few minutes down the path, I enjoyed a refreshing and uneventful river crossing. Putting my socks on at the opposite bank, it felt like I’d already accomplished a great deal given my initial plan.
Walking out of Glen Feshie was just as beautiful as walking into it. Three white horses in the valley contrasted with the breathtaking dark greens and yellows of the scenery: one of those scenes that is never done justice with a camera as compared with the real thing (but of course I attempted it).
On paper, the day would be an ‘easy one’ as compared with the elevation gains I’d had the past two days. I’d treated my blister in the morning before I left, but I had some trepidation about making that worse. So far, it seemed like I had it in a good place. The day would take me on tracks (a luxury) for the first half, but the book I’d referenced warned of some serious ‘heather-bashing’ in the second half, which I tried to rationalize to myself would not be as difficult as it normally is.
Of course, it was just as challenging as walking off-trail through heather usually is, and I made it a bit worse by struggling to find the best way down to a ‘footbridge’ over the River Tromie around lunchtime. This resulted in some frustrating ‘down then back up’ moments, ultimately resulting in me finding the ‘footbridge’ (and the reason why I put it in quotes). I didn’t get a picture of it, but rest assured it wasn’t my favorite experience from someone who doesn’t like heights.
The rest of the day was pretty much as advertised and it was just about making tracks across a heathered and undulating landscape – sometimes getting a great track, and then inexplicably seeing it give way to nothing.
I arrived at the shores of Loch Cuiach just before 4pm, and scoped out potential pitch locations, finding a perfectly secluded corner on the southeast side of the loch. While soaking my feet in the peaceful creek running into the loch, the ranger truck I’d seen on my way in pulled around next to me. Flashes of having to stick my wet feet back in my trail shoes flashed through my head. “No campfires, OK?” said the ranger. “Of course not.” And that was that, a thumbs up and the truck headed off. I love Scotland.
This evening may be my favorite on the trip. The weather was the best it had been all day, I had the perfect pitch and location, and total solitude only a short distance from Dalwhinnie. That, and after three full days of hiking, you start to feel like you can really do this, as your body has had to rest, recover, and do it again multiple times already. After a wee skinny-dip, I spent the evening reading, having some food and hot drinks, and reviewing my route for the rest of the week – starting to form a plan to shorten it by a day by reaching Lairig Leacach Bothy on Day 5, putting me in a position to get to Fort William on Friday night.
Day 4 – Loch Cuiach to Tent pitch near Culra (17.4 Miles, 1,004ft gained)
I couldn’t resist another swim first thing in the morning to wash away the fog. After that, and some coffee and breakfast, I was on my way into Dalwhinnie. This would be the only significant town I would pass through, and the location of my food resupply parcel that I had shipped ‘Post Restante’ (aka General Delivery) to the local Post Office the week before. I had budgeted a couple of hours in town, not knowing what else would be there.
After checking that my parcel was definitely there and I would be able to access it, I walked across the street to a cafe offering hearty Scottish breakfasts, wifi, and some well-placed outlets for charging. Thankfully, I was still hungry for ‘second breakfast’ and I was able to get some insurance charging done on my phone, and give my parents / wife a quick update.
After getting my parcel, I reassembled my food bag on a picnic table and took stock of some of the extra food I had (I was already realizing I probably packed too much). At the moment I started walking again, I spotted a couple of backpackers and offered some surplus clif bars, and a few other snacks to a warm reception. I frustratingly circumnavigated the town to where I thought the railroad crossing was, only to realize no pedestrian traffic was allowed there anymore – and, even more frustratingly, realizing the route to the underpass was right next door to the Post Office. Ah well.
The rest of that day was the best weather of the trip (memorable due to the need to apply sunscreen). I walked along the shores of Loch Ericht and had lunch next door to a church of the Ben Alder estate on the shores of the loch. Reaching my pitch near Culra Bothy would be on trail the entire way and pretty straightforward.
The day had been pretty easy, though I felt the distance in my feet a bit when I finally set my pack down in this beautiful setting. The bothy itself has been closed except for emergencies for the past 5+ years (warnings of asbestos is spray painted on the side), but the tent pitch couldn’t have been a better location with the towering peaks surrounding me in a perfect light.
Day 5 – Tent pitch near Culra to Lairig Leacach Bothy (22.0 Miles, 2,480ft gained)
The next day represented part one of my master plan to get to Fort William a day early. It meant pushing past Loch Ossian and staying the night at Lairig Leacach Bothy, west of Loch Treig (northwest of Corrour station, the highest mainline train station in Scotland). With the presence of trails and the relatively limited elevation gain, the distance felt manageable.
I knew today would be the first truly wet one of the trip (I had avoided the only real rain of the trip after I arrived at Corrour bothy on day one) so my waterproofs were at the ready. After a tediously winding trail along the river in the morning, the heavens finally unleashed about halfway along Loch Ossian. This happening when it did all but guaranteed me stopping in at the “Corrour Station House” cafe at the train station (another pleasant surprise), providing a nice opportunity to dry off, a venison burger, and a cheeky pint. I also took advantage of their wifi to make a few arrangements in Fort William. Having already passed my original destination on Loch Ossian by lunchtime, I felt confident that at least part one of my plan would work out and I could confidently reach the bothy that night. Thus, I ‘burned my boats’ and dropped a not insignificant amount of money on a room at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel near Fort William on Friday night. Upping the stakes for my Friday plan.
Dragging myself up from the comfort of the cafe, I started on the final 6-7 miles to the bothy. The trail was straightforward enough, with the only annoyance being a sudden increase in the insect pressure (deer ticks more so than the midges). I combatted this with long sleeves, my bug net, and smidge spray, but reconciling this with the warm/humid conditions was a bit of a balancing act.
I made it to the bothy at a reasonable time, again keeping my fingers crossed that I would have a spot. Not to worry, this would be my only truly solo bothy stay for the trip – a cool experience in a place as isolated as this. With my wet feet, I was thankful the bothy had the materials for a fire (something I repaid by stocking the bothy cupboard with a couple surplus backpacking meals). I signed the bothy book with my name and what brought me here, and enjoyed perusing the past entries of people planning to climb Stob Ban or the Grey Corries. It was a nice evening, featuring my anticipated ‘treat’ meal of Skurka Beans and Rice.
Day 6 – Lairig Leacach Bothy to Glen Nevis Youth Hostel (18.5 Miles, 8,100ft gained)
After filling up my water by the bothy, I was on the trail by 8am. I really enjoyed the pictures I got of the bothy that morning, with the grey against the green and its mysterious misty location. Also, the froggy boi that I spotted before getting on my way (one of my most exciting creature sightings of the trip…).
Thus began the ‘double day,’ born out of underestimation but ultimately one I am happy I did. Essentially, the summary of this day is very much about gaining 3600+ ft ridges and then descending to approx. 2200 ft, then going back up, then doing it again. Also, the misty / wet weather, and the relative difficulty of accessing this area for a day hike meant I only saw one couple until I reached the summit of Ben Nevis at 8pm.
Knowing what I had in front of me, I unapologetically skipped summiting Stob Ban nearest the bothy, but eventually would cover the final three ‘4000ers’ in my quest: Aonach Beag (7th), Aonach Mor (8th), and Ben Nevis (the tallest peak in the British Isles; 9th).
It was a day of painfully undershooting walking speed goals and underestimating true distances when ascending and descending across ridges and peaks. But, on each summit, as I rewarded myself for reaching a new milestone (Haribo Tangfastics), I also kept re-calculating ETAs to ensure my plan was realistic. I had left myself a dinner for that evening in case I needed to stop and pitch camp before my goal. But, I knew that even if I had to descend Ben Nevis in the dark, I was much more confident doing that on the ‘tourist trail,’ likely in the presence of ‘Three Peaks Challenge’ participants who were trying to do the peaks in 24hrs.
On the last point, I was right. I reached Ben Nevis summit right at dusk around 8/8:15pm together with some day hikers. The funny part was that the actual summiting of Ben Nevis was not the hard part of the day, having already gained the elevation in other slogs. I didn’t dally on the summit, and made my way down the mountain, thankful to be on the other side: exhausted, and knowing I’d pushed my feet through some blister warning signs with an ‘it’s the last day’ mindset.
Thankfully, there’s a dedicated path from Ben Nevis that runs directly to the youth hostel, and I arrived around 10:15pm. After a shower, a beer, and a dinner of dried mango, almonds, and beef jerky, a bed has never felt so good.
It was almost weird being in a bed that evening, but my decision to push to Fort William a day early really paid off. Having the extra day to chill out before needing to negotiate travel on Sunday was ideal. There is nothing quite like a ‘bonus day’ just to yourself after accomplishing a big task. I enjoyed that feeling the entire day: getting another big Scottish breakfast (and seeing a random friend passing through), going between outdoors/thrift stores to find clothing sale items to improve my general smell, and starting on post-trip reflections and the origins of this trip report over a beer at the pub.
The Sunday travel day became slightly more exciting, finding out that Scotrail train operators are currently striking on Sundays after arriving at the station. That said, friendly folks at the station ticket desk and tourist office helped me sort out the bus to Glasgow, and the best itinerary to Berwick (where my car was), which didn’t set me back all that much from my initial ETA. It was also great to see the two backpackers I’d given extra food to in Dalwhinnie on the bus to Glasgow (small world).
Gear Notes & Plans for the future:
- Too much food – As this was my longest trip duration to date, it was the first time I really had to think about food planning in a comprehensive way, along with caloric intake. I was pleased with how I managed it (including the resupply idea), but whereas I worked to achieve 4000cal / day in a weight efficient manner, I didn’t then take the step of further ‘dialling in’ the plan to ensure I didn’t overdo it. I also could have been more aware of the hot food options I would have – at least in Dalwhinnie and Corrour. Essentially, the opportunity is to reduce the quantity of trail snacks I brought and think about what calories / day I can get away with while still feeling full over a 7-day trip.
- Shoes – I had durability issues with my Altra Lone Peak 4.5’s. I have found these shoes to be amongst the most comfortable trail runners I’ve used since I started actively doing ultralight backpacking in 2017, and I wasn’t really aware of the durability concerns when I got them last year. Funny story: I was listening to the Backpacking Light podcast on day 3 of the trip, and they mentioned the concerns of these shoes lasting more than 150mi. I then started to think “Hmm, how many miles have I put on these?” A few minutes of tabulating got me to approximately 150mi as of that day. That evening in camp, I noticed both shoes’ uppers were coming away from the sole. I was able to manage through the rest of the trip, tying the laces extra tight (and being careful in rocky areas), but this left me turned off from Altras, if only from a sustainability standpoint. I’ve since picked up a pair of inov-8 Terraultra G 270s, which I have a good feeling about and feel like lightweight tanks (in terms of robustness) compared to the Altras.
- Extra socks – On overnights and shorter trips, I have always stuck to the formula of Injinji midweight toe socks during the day and a pair of wool sleep socks (this trip a pair of DeFeet Woolie-Boolies) at night, which are kept sacredly dry. If I had stopped and thought before this trip, I would have said an extra pair of toe socks for switching out during hiking would have been well worth the weight given the ‘perma-wet’ conditions in Scotland. In the end, I managed the maceration well, but this is something I’ll consider for longer trips in the UK.
- Camp shoes – I’ve never done camp shoes before, but I figured for the longer trip, and likelihood of arriving in camp early most days, this would be a nice luxury. I picked up a pair of Xero Shoes Z-Trails before the trip, and I was super pleased I brought them. They weighed in at 11.7oz together, and I valued having something solid and comfortable not just on the trail, but afterwards when my Altras were wet.
- Accessible water – I thought a lot about this on the trip in terms of an area I could look to improve. My tried and true Osprey Exos 48 has served me extremely well as I’ve gotten into ultralight these past few years, but as handy as the hip belt pockets are for snacks etc, you need to drop the pack for water bottle access if hiking solo. I am increasingly intrigued by fastpacking and the concept of having water bottles on the shoulder straps. There’s an opportunity also for me to be more cognizant of how accessible water is in Scotland, try to reduce what I carry at any one time, and have a quicker option for purification than Aquamira in certain situations.
- Different approach needed for dialling in my gear list – I had opportunities to further dial my gear list, as well. I probably could have done without one of the top layers of clothes (either the fleece or the down) given the relatively warm temperatures and warm quilt (10F) I have. Right now, I have a ‘one size fits all’ gear list approach. I am going to reformat my Google Sheet to better compartmentalize which gear would be brought in which conditions or type of trip. I think this will help me to make better gear purchasing and packing decisions.
- Backpacking light podcast – Just wanted to give a shout out to a podcast I really enjoyed listening to during the trip. I initially planned to do audiobooks (I did listen to ‘The Verge’ by Patrick Wyman), but ended up binging almost every episode of this podcast. I enjoy the relatively open-ended interview style, which leads to some really interesting conversations with people in the industry. Also, the act of listening to it while reflecting on my own preparation and experience of the trip really helped me to formulate some post-trip plans and resolutions.
- Foot health – I felt quite proud of how I managed my feet on this trip, given that a problem here could have been a gamechanger for the enjoyment of a seven day outing. I dealt with a blister on the bottom of my left big toe on Day 2 and actually healed it by the end of the trip. Similarly, I kept maceration in check. That said, I could have listened more closely to my feet and stopped on the trail to address the issue sooner in some cases. Also, I felt quite a bit of soreness in the ball of my feet by the end. Open to thoughts on this, but one area I think can help is just better physical training leading into the trip (i.e. load-bearing, getting used to terrain).
- Post restante – I could have helped myself a bit by dialling in my food list, but the info found on Section Hiker to take advantage of Post Restante in the UK, and the helpfulness of the Dalwhinnie Post Office (service station) was a big win for the trip. I sent it up the week prior, giving me the ability to call and confirm they had it and there would be no issue for me to pick up on Wednesday, before I got on the trail.
- Garmin inReach Mini – I’ve had one of these with me for my other weekend trips leading up to this one, but I’ve really only had it for its SOS feature. Given the longer, solo nature of this trip, I resolved to actually figure out how best to get the most of its features. I ended up being really impressed with the ability to ‘blast’ preset, geo-tagged messages to my loved ones, as well as the weather reports and bluetooth pairing with my phone for more complex messages. It felt like a game changer for my wife and parents, as well.
- Reflections on physical fitness training for future trips, more ambitious endeavours, and making what I enjoy doing more accessible in my day-to-day. – Proving to myself that I can do 103mi and the associated elevation gain in six days with a pack helped me reflect on a few questions: 1) How can I make this less of a ‘big deal’ for myself and my body?; 2) If I can do this with very little preparation, what could I do if I actually prepared in a structured way?; 3) Could focusing more on the second point actually help me tie ‘exercise’ into doing more of what I enjoy in my day-to-day? I did a lot of thinking about this on the weekend following the trip, determined not to let my ‘re-entry’ into my normal life go as it normally does: quickly ‘losing the magic’ of the trip. Two weeks after the fact, I still have work to do, but I am on the right track. I have signed up for a coach with Training Peaks. Many might consider this overkill, but I am very bad at sticking with structured exercise, and I’ve seen the value of a coach in other parts of my life recently. So far, so good. I’m going to use this approach to build towards goals of fastpacking, being able to consider myself a ‘trail-runner’, and doing parts of the Highland 550 bikepacking route in 2022 with a friend. Maybe even more importantly, I’m planning to use this to do more mundanely ‘crazy’ things (i.e. microadventures) like Tuesday evening overnights around my house or more ambitious overnight weekend fastpacks in the UK.